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MIKE DIXON savours a gala to celebrate the memory of The Royal Ballet's indelible legend
To mark the centenary of her birth, The Royal Ballet paid tribute to its only Prima Ballerina Assoluta in a series of intelligent and appropriate choices from Fonteyn’s huge repertoire of roles, including many created for her by Frederick Ashton. Fonteyn is a legend for very many good reasons, so it is appropriate here to immediately nail a warped and inaccurate idea among some current dancers and teachers that Fonteyn had an inadequate technique. This is a view only ever expressed by people who never saw her perform in the theatre or who drew their uninformed conclusions from something they had seen on video. No one who ever saw Fonteyn dance, live, in front of a paying audience, could ever have doubted her greatness as a dance artist. Many contemporary witnesses attest to her ability to induce audiences to weep with emotion, and this applied not only to the final moments of Romeo and Juliet and Marguerite and Armand but to Act II of Swan Lake! She touched the human heart as few dancers have ever done and induced abiding respect and love in her colleagues. It was instructive during this gala event to see wonderful dancers performing her roles but not ever equalling the memory of her dancing them. On stage Fonteyn radiated a poise and serenity that remains unequalled. One never felt nervous whether she could get through a role, even when she was in her late fifties. She possessed an adamantine discipline, bred from dancing over 20 one-act ballets a week during the second World War. She gently commanded the stage like a well-bred monarch, and drew all eyes to her, even in moments of stillness. Her biggest fans were other ballerinas.
The evening opens with Fokine’s The Firebird, a ballet long associated with Fonteyn, who was taught the role by Tamara Karsavina, the original interpreter. Itziar Mendizabal captures the fierce independence of the supernatural creature, her long limbs slicing through the air in flight, her expressive arms forming imperious shapes as she commands the followers of Kostcheï to dance to exhaustion. The avian qualities are fully on display in Mendizabal’s outstanding interpretation, but there is a lack of womanly sensuality in the slow pas de deux with Nehemiah Kish’s noble Ivan Tsarevich. Fokine and Karsavina’s complicated personal relationship is echoed in this duet of struggle and attempted escape and is integral to the choreography. Christopher Carr’s staging is outstanding; the entire cast are well drilled and respond well to the surging rhythms of Stravinsky’s opulent music, conducted by Emmanuel Plasson.
After the interval, a series of divertissements hints at Fonteyn’s range as an artist, opening with Marienela Nuñez as Aurora in The Sleeping Beauty’s Rose Adage. With four suitors in the form of Gary Avis, Nicol Edmonds, Nehemiah Kish and Thomas Whitehead, and with Christina Arestis and Alastair Marriott as the Queen and King, Nuñez gives a radiant, smiling account of Aurora’s testing balances. Her technical assurance and attention to musical phrasing ensure this is a memorable performance. This was Fonteyn’s most famous role and she achieved her triumphs
largely through her use of impeccable musicality, a quality that struck awe in her contemporaries on stage. This was Fonteyn’s most famous role and she achieved her triumphs largely through her use of impeccable musicality, a quality that struck awe in her contemporaries on stage. Beatriz Stix-Brunell performs the Flower Girl solo from Ashton’s Nocturne (1936) to music by Delius, dressed in an elegant grey-and-white costume designed by Sophie Fedorovitch. It has all the hallmarks of early Ashton, with expressive bending in the torso and wonderful pointe work. Stix-Brunell’s bourrées are ravishing. Romany Pajdak, in a matching solo from Ashton’s The Wise Virgins (1940) to music by Bach, wears a bridal gown and veil designed by Rex Whistler. There is a spiritual tone to the movement, which features expressive hands and melting ports de bras. These fragments are rarities not seen for a long time, but well taught and worth seeing.
Birthday Offering (1956) was made by Ashton to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the founding of the company, which was about to receive its royal charter. It originally celebrated the talents of seven ballerinas, is an important landmark in The Royal Ballet’s history and overdue for revival. Danced to music by Glazunov and designed by André Levasseur, Birthday Offering is a showcase for a strong classical company. Fumi Kaneko dances Fonteyn’s very tricky solo, full of beaten steps and jumps, with considerable panache. This is followed by Sarah Lamb and Ryoichi Hirano in the central pas de deux made for Fonteyn and Michael Somes. It contains some very complex partnering, featuring moments where the ballerina is left on balance as the cavalier changes his supporting hand from one side to another (something Balanchine did years later in the Diamonds section of Jewels), and requires a ballerina with phenomenal balance. Lamb and Hirano conquer the technicalities with considerable aplomb, but the choreography’s inherent lyricism proves elusive.
In the first pas de deux from Ashton’s Ondine (1958) we see Francesca Hayward emerging from the fountain and performing the Pas d’Ombre, where the innocent water nymph discovers she has a shadow. If any dancer could claim to be in the tradition of Fonteyn it is Hayward, with her fleet footwork, ravishing épaulement, expressive upper body and complete identification with the role. She dances with total freedom and fluid plastique and is ably supported by Edward Watson as Palemon in their pas de deux. Ondine has never been anyone’s favourite Ashton ballet, Henze’s commissioned score is beautiful but not eminently danceable, but Hayward in the full-length ballet would be a fascinating experience. Delibes’ magnificent score for Sylvia (1952) is another story altogether and Mayara Magri brings considerable athleticism to the entrance of the huntress accompanied by her attendants. In Daphnis and Chloë (1951) Anna Rose O’Sullivan and Alexander Campbell prove to be a felicitous pairing. His manly and attentive presence is contrasted with O’Sullivan’s crystalline dancing, each position clearly and cleanly expressed. As a stylistic experience, she is akin to drinking refreshing water from a mountain stream, and
Campbell has a natural warmth and expressiveness that complements her perfectly.
In the evening’s only piece of MacMillan choreography, Natalia Osipova and David Hallberg perform the Balcony pas de deux from Romeo and Juliet. The two stars embody impassioned Bolshoi style and commitment, with Osipova like a girl trembling with excitement. There are some lovely moments, but overall there is too much attack, which results in an important lift being badly fumbled and an overall sense of disappointment for the dancers. A star turn of a different ilk comes next, with Darcey Bussell returning to the Royal Ballet [12 years to the day on which she gave her retirement performance in Song of the Earth] to dance the Debutante with would-be Latin seducer Gary Avis in Ashton’s Façade (1931). The tango paso doble number, like the rest of Façade, is a parody of popular dance styles and contrasts the dippy young society girl with an ageing roué. Fonteyn danced the role throughout her career, finally performing it with the 70-year-old Robert Helpmann on her 60th birthday. Bussell is perfect in the role and Gary Avis brings some wonderful touches to his partnering. Yasmine Naghdi and Vadim Muntagirov echo the famous pairing of Fonteyn and Rudolf Nureyev in Le Corsaire, a pas de deux they performed all over the world. This version is a world away from the previous one stylistically and choreographically, but Muntagirov scintillates in his solos and Naghdi brings a clean technique to her variation.
The Ballroom Scene from Apparitions (1936) features Lauren Cuthbertson and Matthew Ball supported by a corps de ballet of 16, with the opening tableau of elegant revellers seen in silhouette. The music is by Liszt, the costumes by Cecil Beaton and the choreography by Ashton, comprising the same triumvirate of creative elements as for Marguerite and Armand, and the resemblances between the two ballets are striking, not just in the melodic mood and the sumptuous costumes but in the choreographic motifs Ashton employs, which recur in later works, like The Two Pigeons. Grant Coyle has done an outstanding service in staging this piece, with its brittle scenario of waltzing couples, interacting and changing partners. The Galop, which occurs at the end of the section, features some sublime dancing from the entire cast as they revolve in an ever-changing circular pattern. Cuthbertson is astonishingly good in the role of the alluring object of desire and Ball has matinée-idol presence as the young composer pursuing her. His impetuous entrance followed by complete stillness is masterly, and more effective than when Rudolf Nureyev essayed the role in 1970 for Ashton’s Farewell Gala. Fonteyn’s deep, velvety backbends drew gasps of admiration that evening, and Cuthbertson does not disappoint in the florid use of her upper body, softly swooping and sweeping from the waist.
The finale was left to Fonteyn herself, filmed dancing Ashton’s solo to Elgar’s famous Salut d’Amour at her Farewell Gala on her 60th birthday. Magical!
This article was first published in Dance Europe no. 241, July 2019